THE number of criminals being given suspended sentences has soared in the last decade in parts of Yorkshire amid fears serious and repeat offenders are being allowed to escape justice.
Almost one in three prison sentences handed out by courts across the country were suspended in 2012, up from just one in fifty a decade earlier, according to new figures from the Centre for Crime Prevention think-tank.
In some parts of the country the number of such sentences, where criminals only have to serve the prison term they are given if they fail to meet certain requirements set by the court, has increased 82 times over since 2002.
Yorkshire has also seen big increases, with 1,498 suspended sentences handed down in 2012 in West Yorkshire compared to 89 in 2002, a 17-fold rise. Twenty-seven per cent of all prison sentences in the county were suspended in 2012 compared to one per cent in 2002.
North Yorkshire has also seen a 17-fold increase from 27 to 454 suspended sentences, while the Humberside police force area and South Yorkshire have seen numbers go up 16 and 10 times over respectively.
Across the country, the Centre for Crime Prevention says “tens of thousands of violent, property and sexual offences each year, ranging from spitting at people to manslaughter” are now subject to such sentences.
It says 11,670 serious offenders had their prison sentence suspended in 2012/13 despite more than 10 previous convictions or cautions, while 9,052 serious offenders had their prison sentence suspended despite 15 or more previous conviction or cautions.
Peter Cuthbertson, author of the think-tank’s report, said: “Thugs and sex offenders who think they are finally going to prison are overjoyed when they find out that the prison sentence has been suspended.
“It makes a mockery of justice for victims and puts the public at great risk. These figures show that criminals given suspended sentences go on to commit hundreds of thousands of crimes. Suspended sentences should be abolished.”
Among the Yorkshire cases cited by the report was that of camper van driver Alastair Burnell, who was given a three-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, and banned from driving for 12 months after mowing down a cyclist in a road rage attack in Hull in 2013.
It also features the case of a paedophile priest at a Catholic school for deaf children in Wetherby who admitted assaulting two pupils but received only a six-month suspended sentence and a £1,500 fine.
Among celebrities who have received suspended sentences are singer Pete Doherty, who admitted drug and driving offences, former GMTV presenter Louise Port, found guilty of housing benefit fraud, and retired footballer Paul Gascoigne, caught drink-driving in Newcastle.
The report claims suspended sentences are failing to stop criminals committing more crimes, and that 110,745 offenders were sentenced last year despite one or more previous suspended sentences.
Earlier this month, a man was jailed for choking the pregnant mother of his children in a bar in Leeds while subject to a suspended prison sentence for an earlier violent attack.
Jermain Ogunbiyi, 26, was given a two-and-a-half-year sentence over the attack in the Backroom bar in Leeds city centre.
In his report, Mr Cuthbertson said the public were confused about suspended sentences and that some people he had spoken to thought it meant the offender was sent to prison.
He said: “In fact, the criminal walks free, the sentence never served as long as the criminal is not caught re-offending, or caught in breach of basic requirements.”
He said the most likely explanation for the increase was the changes made in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act abolishing the requirement that courts suspend a prison sentence only when this could be “justified by the exceptional circumstances of the case”.
Philip Goldberg, a partner at Leeds law firm Lester Morrill, said more suspended sentences are being passed “probably due to the fact that powers surrounding suspended sentences have increased over the years”.
He said: “My experience is that when suspended sentences are imposed there is more likelihood of the defendant completing the community element of the offence rather than when defendants are made subject to community orders.”
Paul Firth, a retired district judge who sat in magistrates’ courts in Yorkshire, Merseyside and Lancashire, said: “There is an argument that if a suspended sentence works and the offender doesn’t commit a further offence it is a worthwhile sentencing objective, it has kept them out of trouble, but the counter argument is that they might have kept out of trouble anyway.
“The problem is that if I sentence an offender to immediate imprisonment the world knows that is what will happen, if in the more modern regime the sentence is suspended, on that day the defendant is not punished at all.
“If I am a victim of an assault for which the offender gets a suspended sentence I do not know what will happen in the future, I may never find out what happens with the sentence.”
Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said: “Since 2010 criminals are more likely to go to prison – and for longer.
“In the 12 months to June 2013 almost 48,000 offenders didn’t ‘walk free’ but went straight to prison - four times as many as got a suspended sentence.
“It is right that the most serious offenders spend longer behind bars, which is why we are overhauling sentencing and making sure judges have tough sentencing options available to them.
“But sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the independent judiciary based on the full facts of each case.”